The male human animal, skulking through the impenetrable, fetid jungle of kidhood, learns early in the game just what sort of animal he is. The jungle he stalks is a howling tangled wilderness, infested with crawling, flying, leaping, nameless dangers. There are occasional brilliant patches of passionate orchids and other sweet flowers and succulent fruits, but they are rare. He daily does battle with horrors and emotions that he will spend the rest of his life trying to forget or suppress. Or recapture.
His jungle is a wilderness he will never fully escape, but those first early years, when the bloom is on the peach and the milk teeth have just barely departed, are the crucial days in the great education. I am not at all sure that girls have even the slightest hint that there is such a jungle. But no man is really qualified to say. Most wildernesses are masculine, anyway.
And one thing that must be said about a wilderness, in contrast to the supple silkiness of civilization, is that the basic, primal elements of existence are laid bare and raw. And can't be ducked. It is in this jungle that all men find out about themselves. Things we all know, but rarely admit. Say, for example, about that beady-eyed, clawed and ravening carnivore, that incorrigibly wild, insane, scurrying little beast - the killer that is in each one of us. We pretend it isn't there most of the time, but this is a silly, idle sham, as most male ex-kids know. They have seen it and have run fleeing from it more than once. Screaming into the night.
One quiet summer afternoon, leafing through a nature book in the library, with the sun slanting down on the oaken tables, I came across a picture of a creature called the Tasmanian devil. He glared directly at me out of the page, with an unwavering red-eyed gaze, and I have never forgotten it. I was looking at my own soul!
The Tasmanian devil is well named, being a nocturnal marsupial of extraordinary ferocity, being strictly carnivorous, and, when cornered, fighting with a nuttiness beyond all bounds of reason. In fact, it is said that he is one of the few creatures On earth that actually looks forward to being cornered.
I looked him in the eye; he looked back, and even front the flat, glossy surface of the paper I could feel his burning rage, a primal fury that glowed white-hot like the core of a nuclear explosion. A chord of understanding was struck between us. He knew and I knew. We were killers. The only thing that separated us was the sham. He admitted it, and 1 had been attempting to cover it up all of my life.
I remember well the first time my own Tasmanian devil - without warning screamed out of the darkness revealed himself for what he was - a fanged and maniacal meat eater. Every male child sweats inside at a word that is rarely heard today: bully. That is not to say that bullies no longer exist. Sociologists have given them other and softer-sounding labels, "overaggressive child,'' for example, but they all amount to the same thing - rneatheads. Guys who grow up banging grilles in parking lots and becoming captains of industry or Mafia hatchet men. Every school had at least five, and they usually gathered followers and toadies like barnacles on the bottom of a garbage scow. The lines were clearly drawn. You were either a bully, a toady, or one of the nameless rabble of victims who hid behind hedges, continually ran up alleys, ducked under porches, and tried to get a connection with city hall - city hall being the bully himself.
I was 13, and an accomplished alley runner who wore sneakers to school not from choice but to get off the mark quicker. I was well-qualified to endorse Keds Champions with: "I have outrun some of the biggest bullies of my time wearing Keds, and I am still here to tell the tale."
It would make a great ad in Boys' Life: "KIDS! When that cold sweat pours down your back and you are facing the moment of truth on the way home from the store, don't you wish you had bought Keds? Yes, our new Bully-Beater model has been endorsed by skinny kids with glasses from coast to coast. That extra six feet may mean the difference between making the porch and you-know-what!"
Many of us have grown up wearing mental Keds and still ducking behind filing cabinets, water coolers and into convenient men's rooms when that cold sweat trickles down between the shoulder blades. My moment of truth was a kid named Grover Dill.
What a rotten name! Dill was a runny-nose type of bully. His nose was always running, even when it wasn't. He was a yelling, wiry, malevolent, sneevily snively bully who had quelled all insurgents for miles around. I did not know one kid who was not afraid of Dill, mainly because Dill was truly aggressive. This kind of aggression later in life is often called "talent" or "drive," but to the great formless herd of kids it just means a lot of running, getting belted, and continually feeling ashamed.
If Dill so much as said hi to you you felt great and warm inside. But mostly he just hit you in the mouth. Now, a true bully is not a flash in the pan, and Dill wasn't. This went on for years. I must have been in about second grade when Dill first belted me behind the ear.
Maybe the terrain had something to do with It. Life was very basic in northern Indiana, in a steel town at the far southern tip of Lake Michigan. Life was more primal there than in, say, New York City or New Jersey or California. Take the seasons. Snow, ice, hard rocky frozen ground that wouldn't thaw out until late June. Kids played baseball all Winter on this frozen lumpy tundra. Ground balls would come
"K-tunk K-tunk K-tank K-tunk" over the arctic concrete. And then summer would come. The ground would thaw and the wind would come, whistling in off the lake, a hot Sahara gale. I lived the first ten years of my life in a continual sandstorm. A sandstorm in the Dunes region, With the temperature at a hundred and five and no rain since the first of June, produces in a kid the soul of a Death Valley prospector. The Indiana Dunes - in those days no one thought they were special or spectacular - they were just the Dunes, all sand and swamps and slumber wolves and even rattlesnakes. There were also rattlesnakes in fifth grade: like Grover Dill, a puff adder among garden worms.
This terrain grew very basic kids who fought the elements all their lives. We'd go to school in a sandstorm and come home just before a tornado. Lake Michigan is like an enormous flue that stretches all the way up into the Straits of Mackinac, into the great north woods of Canada, and the wind howls down that lake like a gigantic chimney. We lived at the bottom of this immense stovepipe. The wind hardly ever stops. Winter, spring, summer, fall - whatever weather we had was made 20 times worse by the wind. If it was warm, it seared you like the open door of a blast furnace. If it was cold, the wind sliced you to little pieces, diced and cubed you, ground you up, then put you back to-gether and started all over again. People had red faces all year round front the wind.
When the sand is blowing off the Dunes in the summer it does something to the temper. The sand gets in your shoes and always hurts between the toes. The kids would cut the sides of their sneakers so that when the sand would get to be too much, you just stick your foot up in the air and the sand would squirt out and you're ready for another ten minutes of action.
Grover Dill was just another of the hostile elements of nature, like the sand, the wind - and the stickers. Northern Indiana has a strange little green bur that has festered in fingers and ankles for countless centuries. One of the great moments in life for a kid was to catch a fly ball covered with a thick fur of stickers in a barehand grab, driving them in right to the marrow of the knuckle bones.
One day, without warning of any kind, it happened. Monumental moments in our lives are rarely telegraphed. I am coming home from school on a hot, shimmering day, totally unaware that I was about to meet face to face my Tasmanian devil, that clawed, raging maniac that lurks inside each of us. There were three or four of us eddying along, blown like leaves through vacant lots, sticker patches, asphalt streets, steaming cindered alleys, wading through great clouds of Indiana grasshoppers, big dark, green ones that spat tobacco juice on your kneecaps and hollered and yelled in the weeds on all sides. The eternal locusts were shrieking in the poplars and the monarch butterflies were on the wing amid the thistles. In short, it was a day like any other.
My kid brother is with me and we have one of those little running ball games going, where you bat the ball with your hand back and forth to each other, moving homeward at the same time. The ball hops along; you field it; you throw it hack; somebody tosses it; it's grabbed on the first bounce, you're out, but nobody stops moving homeward. A moving ball game, like a floating crap game.
We were about a block or so from my house, bouncing the ball over the concrete when it happened. We are moving along over the sandy landscape, under the dark lowering clouds of open-hearth haze that always hung between us and the sun. I dart to my right to field a ground ball. A foot lashes out unexpectedly and down I go, fiat on my face on the concrete road. I hit hard and jarring, a bruising, scraping jolt that cut my lip and drew blood. Stunned for a second, I look up. It is the dreaded Dill!
To this day I have no idea how he materialized out of nowhere to trip me flat and to finally force the issue. "Come on kid, get out of the way, willya?" He grabs the ball and whistles it off to one of his toadies. He had yellow eyes. So help me God, yellow eyes!
I got up with my knees bleeding and my hands stunned and tingling from the concrete, and without any conception at all of what I was doing I screamed and rushed. My mind was a total red, raging, flaming blank. I know I screamed.
The next thing I knew we are rolling over and over on the concrete, screaming and clawing. I'm out of my skull! I am pounding Dill against the concrete and we're rolling over and over, battering at each other's faces. I was screaming continually. I couldn't stop. I hit him over and over in die eyes. He rolled over me, but I was kicking and clawing, gouging, biting, tearing. I was vaguely conscious of people coming out of houses and across lawns. I was on top. I grabbed at his head. I caught both of Grover Dill's ears in either hand and I began to pound him on the concrete, over and over again.
I have since heard of people under extreme duress speaking in strange tongues. I became conscious that a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing was pouring out of me as I screamed. I could hear my brother running home, hysterically yelling for my mother, but only dimly. All I knew is that I was tearing and ripping and smashing at. Grover Dill, who fought hack like a fiend! But I guess it was the first time he had ever met face to face with an unleashed Tasmanian devil.
I continued to swear fantastically. I was conscious of it, and yet it was as though it was coming from something or someone outside of me. I swore as I have never sworn since as we rolled screaming on the ground. And suddenly we were pulled apart. Dill, the hack of his head all battered, his eyes puffed and streaming, slashed by my claws and fangs, was hysterical. There was hardly a scratch on me, except for my scraped knees.
I learned then that bravery does not exist, just a kind of latent insanity. If I had thought about attacking Dill for ten seconds before I had done it, I'd have been four blocks away in a minute flat. But something had happened. A fuse had blown. And I had gone out of my skull.
But I had sworn! Terribly! Obscenely! In our house you didn't swear. The things I called Dill I'm sure my mother had not even heard before. And I had only heard them once or twice, coming out of an alley. I had woven a tapestry of obscenity that as far as I know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan. And toy mother had heard!
Dill by this time is wailing hysterically. This had never happened to him before. They're dragging the two of us apart amid a great ring of surging grownups and exultant, scared kids who
knew more about what was happening than the mothers and fathers ever would. My mother is looking at inc. She said: "What did you say?" That's all. 1 here was a funny look on her face.
At that instant all thought of Grover Dill disappeared front What was left of my mind and all I could think of was the incredible shame of that unbelievable tornado of obscenity I had sprayed all over the neighborhood.
I go into the house in a daze, and my mother's putting water on me in the bathroom, pouring it over my head and dabbing at my eyes winch are pulled and red from hysteria. My kid brother is cowering under the dining-room table, scared. Bruner, next door, has been hiding in the basement, under the steps, scared. The whole neighborhood is scared, and so am I. The water trickles down over my hair and around my ears as I stare into the swirling drainage hole in the sink.
"You better go in and lie down on the day bed. Take it easy. Just go in and lie down.
She takes me by the shoulder and pushes me down on the day bed. I be there scared, really scared of what I have done. I felt no sense of victory, no sense of beating Dill. All I felt was this terrible dung I had said and clone.
The light was getting purple and soft outside, almost time for my father to come home from work. I'm just lying there. I can see that it's getting dark, and I know that he's on his way home. Once in a while a gigantic sob would come out, half hysterically. My kid brother by now is under the sink in the joint, hiding among the mops, moving occasionally.
I hear the car roar up the driveway and a wave of terror breaks over me, the terror that a kid feels when lie knows that retribution is about to be meted out for something that he's been hiding forever: his rottenness. The basic rottenness has been uncovered, and now it's the wrath of God, which you are not only going to get, but which you deserve!
I hear him in the kitchen now. I'm in the front bedroom, cowering on the day bed. The normal sounds--he's hollering around with the newspaper. Finally my mother says: "Come on, supper's ready. Come on, kids, wash up.-
I painfully drag myself off the day bed and sneak along the woodwork, under the buffet, skulking,- into the bathroom. My kid brother and I wash together over the sink. He says nothing.
Then I am sitting at the kitchen table, toying with the red cabbage. My old Man says: "Well, what happened today? - and looks up from the sports page. Here it comes!
There is a short pause, and then my mother says: "Oh, not much. Jean had a little fight."
"Fight? What kind of fight!"
She says: "Oh, you know how kids are."
The ax is poised over my naked neck! There is no way out! Mechanically I continue to shovel in the mashed potatoes and red cabbage and meat loaf. But I am tasting nothing, just eating and eating.
"Oh, it wasn't much. I gave him a talking to. By the way, I see the White Sox won today . . ."
About two thirds of the way through the meal I slowly began to realize that I was not about to be destroyed. And then a very peculiar thing happened. A sudden unbelievable twisting, heaving stom-ach cramp hit me so bad I could feel my shoes coining right up through my ears.
I rushed back into the bathroom, so sick to my stomach that my knees were buckling. It was all coming up, pouring out of me, the conglomeration of it all. The terror of Grover Dill, the fear of yelling the things that I had yelled, my father coming home, my obscenities--I heaved it all out. It poured out of me in great heaving rushes, splattering the walls, the floor, the sink. Old erasers that I had eaten years before, library paste that I had downed in second grade. An Indian-head penny that I had gulped when I was two! It all came up in thunderous, retching heaves.
My father hovered out in the hall saying: "'What's the matter with him? What's the matter? Let's call Doctor Slicker!"
My mother knew what was the matter with me.
"Now, lie's going to be all right. Just take it easy. Go back and finish eating. Go on."
She pressed a washrag to the back of my neck. "Now, take it easy. I'm not going to say anything. Just be quiet. Take it easy.-
Down comes the bottle of Pepto-Bismol and the spoon. "Take this. Stop crying.
But then I really started to cry, yelling and blubbering. She was talking low and quiet to me.
"We'll tell him your stomach is upset, that you ate something at school.
The Pepto-Bismol slides down my throat amid my blubbering. Now it's really coming out! I'm scared of Grover Dill again, scared of everything. I'm convinced that I will never grow up to be 21, that I'm going blind!
I'm lying in bed, sobbing, but I finally drift off to sleep, completely passed out from sheer nervous exhaustion. The soft warm air blew the curtains back and forth as we caught the tail of a breeze from the great north woods, from the wilderness at the head of the lake. Both of us slept quietly, me and my red-eyed, fanged, furry little Tasmanian devil. Both of us slept. For the time being.